Local Author Digs Into Local Mining Industry

Speaking in Wheeling, first-time author Kerry George of Adena shared an insider’s view of the mining industry, past and present.

A former coal miner and retired U.S. mine inspector, George appeared at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday, July 8, to introduce his book, “Black Damp Century.” He said his writing project began as a screenplay 30 years ago. However, five years ago, he resumed writing in earnest, using the material for a book. The process took two and one-half years to complete.

George said he worked 11 years as a surface and underground miner, then spent 24 years as a mine inspector in Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. He retired in 1999.

The book is set against the backdrop of coal mining in West Virginia, beginning with the bloody battle at Blair Mountain. The author said he wrote the book as a novel with fictional characters because “I thought it would make it more interesting.”

Industrial America needed workers in the early 20th century, with 900,000 men and boys entering the mines, he said. At that time, explosions and fires in mines were “so commonplace,” resulting in the death of more than 100,000 men and boys, he said.

The worst mine disaster in U.S. history occurred in 1907 at the Monongah mine near Fairmont, where 362 men and boys were killed. However, he said, the unofficial death toll might be up to 500 people because some areas of the mine were so damaged that they could not be explored.

In Ohio, the worst disaster took place in 1930 at Millfield, where 82 men and boys were killed. The dead included the company president and four top executives, George said.

Closer to home, 72 men were killed in the Willow Grove mine disaster in Belmont County in 1940. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt had visited the mine a few months earlier and deemed it the safest in the United States, he said.

Meanwhile, workers were paid in company scrip that was good only at that mine, making a miner “almost a slave,” George said, adding, “Every single (mining) company in America employed some type of police protection to prevent unionization.”

When hired men entered Matewan, W.Va., in 1920 to evict striking miners from company-owned housing, Police Chief Sid Hatfield and the mayor met them. An argument ensued, and seven private detectives and two townspeople were killed. Hatfield, who was cleared of charges in the incident, became “a living legend to miners,” George said.

In 1921, Hatfield and his chief deputy, Ed Chambers, were summoned to appear in court in McDowell County. Private detectives gunned them down, in front of their wives, on the courthouse steps. Miners then marched on Logan and Mingo counties to fight for unionization. A coal operator sent 2,000-plus armed men to Blair Mountain, where a seven-day battle ensued with the miners. George said there was never an accurate count of the dead. In the end, President Warren G. Harding finally acted and instituted martial law, he said.

Nearly 1,000 miners were arrested and charged with murder or conspiracy to commit murder at Blair Mountain, and the conflict broke the United Mine Workers at the time, George said. It took the union 15 years to recover, he added.

Explosions and fires in mines continued until the late 1960s. George said the murder of Joseph “Jock” Yablonski – who had challenged Tony Boyle for the UMW presidency – “set off a decade of anarchy in the coalfields.” An oil embargo in the mid-1970s drove up coal prices, and the “most lucractive contract” was signed in 1974, but it did not address absenteeism or wildcat strikes, he said.

In the late 1970s, a “perfect storm” of a national recession and the first Environmental Protection Agency regulations on sulfur dioxide hit the mining industry. “Our communities became retirement homes,” he commented. “In 35 years, not much has changed.”

Regarding his motivation, George said he wrote the book for his children and the children of all coal miners to relate “what we experienced and how we coped … We have to let them know the past and what we went through.”